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Annika Wells On Writing For BTS, Her Advice For Singer/Songwriters & The Secret Value Of Making People Mad

Annika Wells

Photo: Graham Wolff

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Annika Wells On Writing For BTS, Her Advice For Singer/Songwriters & The Secret Value Of Making People Mad

Even when writing for massive artists like BTS, Annika Wells' MO isn't to appeal to the masses, but to be herself — even when it pisses a few people off

GRAMMYs/Jul 7, 2021 - 03:12 am

Annika Wells' songs have been breathed by artists that 99% of us could only fantasize about working with — including the titans of K-popBTS. And the 25-year-old got there not by trying to appeal to everybody at once, but by entertaining herself first and foremost — and trusting that the right audience will find her in the end.

"My favorite art is art that's made somebody mad. It means you're saying something new," the Angeleno tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom with a grin. "It's not like I'm trying to weird people out, or not not trying to weird people out. I'm saying exactly what I'm thinking and somebody somewhere is going to resonate with it."

"I would rather make one person's favorite song than 100 people's song they put on in the background when they go about their day," she adds.

For most musicians, unbending devotion to unfettered expression might leave their work unheard in the catacombs of Bandcamp. But Wells cultivated a large audience by dealing in universal concepts, like getting over heartbreak and taking a bite out of life. This applies not only to her work with BTS and Steve Aoki ("The Truth Untold"), the Jonas Brothers ("Like It's Christmas") and BAYNK ("go with u"), but her mouthy, personality-first singles under her own name, like "Fk Being Sober" and "Love Sucks."

Read on for an in-depth interview with Wells about how she entered BTS's orbit, why pleasing everyone is a no-no for artists and why finding success in the music business means "pounding down every door" until one swings open.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you talk about your songwriting process, as opposed to your performing process?

I've written for people like BTS, ILLENIUM, Hailee Steinfeld, Maggie Lindemann — a lot of people in the pop sphere. Songwriting has always been my original love. Since I was about eight years old, I've been writing music and have always known that's what I wanted to do. I absolutely love writing for myself and I also love helping other people's stories come to light. Songwriting in any capacity is my passion.

Writing for BTS sounds intense. What's that like?

I actually didn't write with them in the room, especially because they're abroad most of the time. Boy bands and girl bands' schedules are absolutely insane. It's pretty hard to get in a room with them. That session was actually a quick song in how it came about.

I wrote this ballad with one of my friends I went to Berklee College of Music with. He texted me that morning and was like, "Come join this session! Come over to my friend's place!" I was like, "Sure." We ended up writing this song about this unrequited love he had. We all loved it and the song sat around for six months.

Nobody was really picking it up. It's really hard to write a song for a pitch. Nobody was taking a bite. And then, out of the blue, one of the people we wrote it with, their publisher [made a series of connections] and got the song to BTS. [When we heard] BTS wanted to cut it, we were like, "What! That's crazy!" 

It ended up being this collab with Steve Aoki and the song did incredibly well. It was such a cool surprise! I didn't get the opportunity to work with them in person, but it's funny how these opportunities all come about. You never know when something big can happen!

Do you write on a piano? On a guitar? With a digital audio workstation?

All of the above. I started writing on piano. I took classical piano lessons for about 10 years and that has always been my principal instrument. 

But I've been actually writing on guitar recently because I don't know the instrument that well. I've never taken lessons. I feel like with piano, I always overthink it because I know the instrument so well. With guitar, there's room for me to play something wrong and have that mistake be cool. So, it's been fun to write for guitar recently.

Besides BTS, who else have you written for lately?

In the last year, it's been difficult, obviously, to collaborate. I've gone back to working with some people. I've been working a bit with Chloe Lilac, who's an amazing independent artist in New York. I have some stuff coming up on BAYNK's new album. Obviously, ILLENIUM and I are always collaborating. I actually had my first in-person session yesterday, which was so much fun because I'm fully vaccinated. I'm excited to finally get back into this.

What about the songs you write for yourself? Do you delineate between the two when you write, or is an Annika song just an Annika song?

There's definitely an indescribable aspect to it when it feels like me. The music I put out as myself is so deeply personal, and it's kind of the difference [between] "Am I going to tell an absolutely true story today or am I going to put on my imagination hat?" Not necessarily to make something up, but to connect to a real-life experience and tell a story that's not exactly my own.

How would you describe your voice as a songwriter?

My voice, I think, is kind of quirky. "Abrasive" sounds like too abrasive a word, but I think in some ways, it kind of is. 

I want to peel back this veil of what we're supposed to say. Trying to look cool or trying to not embarrass myself. I just want to say what the f* is on my mind. What I'm actually thinking. It's more about saying what I actually want to say rather than thinking about what the audience wants to hear, and inevitably, an audience does come out of the woodwork that wants to hear that.

My favorite art is art that's made somebody mad. It means you're saying something new. Somebody's getting pissed off by it. It's not like I'm trying to weird people out, or not not trying to weird people out. I'm saying exactly what I'm thinking and somebody somewhere is going to resonate with it.

I would rather make one person's favorite song than 100 people's song they put on in the background when they go about their day.

Which songwriters are you checking out lately?

Julia Michaels has always been a favorite of mine. I've been obsessed with her and Justin Tranter since I was in high school. I remember my mom somehow found an article about Justin Tranter and was like, "You need to hear about this guy! You're going to love him!" I became obsessed with their writing style. I love how Julia started this new era of speaking so colloquially—those talking lyrics.

I also love ColdplayChris Martin has inspired so many melodies and also piano voicings. I absolutely love their voicings and how they use these pop chords, but if you actually look at the inversions and structures, it's really complex but they communicate in a way that's so accessible.

Anyone from, say, the '50s through the '80s?

My favorite album of all time is Ella and LouisThat one absolutely stabbed me in the heart. That's the first record I ever bought. Before I even bought a record player, I bought that record and carried it around with me for, like, three years. It's so scratched by now that I need to get a new one since I've listened to it literally hundreds and hundreds of times.

Do you have any advice for younger writers?

My one piece of advice I always go back to in terms of finding opportunities or getting people to hear your music — or generally finding success in the industry — is to get creative with the avenues you're trying. 

The ways I've always found success have been because I've not just knocked on every door, but pounded down every door. Nine out of 10 times, the door's not going to open up! But then one out of 10 is going to open up. If you're the one person who's actively pounding down every door, you're going to be the one who gets through it.

Just try every avenue. Try something weird. Try something people aren't thinking of doing. Just get creative with how you look for opportunities and you're going to find something.

K.Flay On Embracing Inner Wildness & Working With Tom Morello On Her Brazen New EP 'Inside Voices'

The Official 2023 GRAMMYs Playlist Is Here: Listen To 115 Songs By Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar & More
(L-R, clockwise) Steve Lacy, Harry Styles, Lizzo, Anitta, BTS

Photos (L-R): Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Harry Styles, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, LUFRÉ, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

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The Official 2023 GRAMMYs Playlist Is Here: Listen To 115 Songs By Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar & More

Get to know this year's nominees with the official 2023 GRAMMYs playlist, presented in partnership with Amazon Music, which features 115 GRAMMY-nominated songs across pop, rap, country, and beyond from today's stars.

GRAMMYs/Jan 19, 2023 - 04:24 pm

With the 2023 GRAMMYs less than a month away, excitement is bubbling over in the music community.

Whether you're rooting for innovative newcomers like Wet Leg and Omar Apollo or beloved legends like Beyoncé and ABBA, there is an abundance of spectacular talent to be celebrated this year. And the 2023 GRAMMY nominees are not only leading music, but they’re creatively transforming genres, from rap to alternative to reggae — and beyond.

To let the music speak for itself, stream the official 2023 GRAMMYs playlist, presented in partnership with Amazon Music, which features 115 GRAMMY-nominated songs across pop, rap, country, and beyond from today's stars, including BTS, Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo, and many, many more.

Get to know this year's nominees by listening to their biggest hits and GRAMMY-nominated works on this immersive Amazon Music playlist — and tune in to CBS and Paramount+ on Sunday, Feb. 5 to experience Music's Biggest Night live.

Where, What Channel & How To Watch The Full 2023 GRAMMYs

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

Watch Jonas Brothers, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Shaggy & More Discuss The Legacy And Impact Of Paul Simon Backstage At "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"
Paul Simon performing at "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Watch Jonas Brothers, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Shaggy & More Discuss The Legacy And Impact Of Paul Simon Backstage At "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"

Performers at the star-studded tribute from the Jonas Brothers to Brad Paisley to Angélique Kidjo explain why Simon deserves the highest praise in the echelon of American singer/songwriters.

GRAMMYs/Dec 20, 2022 - 05:53 pm

Paul Simon may have won 16 GRAMMYs throughout his illustrious career, but he's getting another honor from the Recording Academy — something much bigger than a golden gramophone.

On Dec. 21, "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon," a two-hour special illuminating the 16-time GRAMMY winner's songbook, will air on the CBS Television Network from 9-11:00 p.m. PT/ET.

The concert features Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Eric Church, Rhiannon Giddens, Susanna Hoffs, Jonas Brothers, Angélique Kidjo, Ledisi, Little Big Town, Dave Matthews, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Sting, Take 6, Irma Thomas, Shaggy and Jimmy Cliff, Trombone Shorty and Stevie Wonder.

Additionally, Sofia Carson, Herbie Hancock, Woody Harrelson, Dustin Hoffman, Elton John, Folake Olowofoyeku, and Oprah Winfrey also make special appearances.

Below, watch exclusive clips where many of these artists express what Simon, a leading light of singing and songwriting, means to them.

The Jonas Brothers

Brad Paisley

Billy Porter

Shaggy

Trombone Shorty

Angélique Kidjo

Ledisi

Folake Olowofoyeku

Catching Up With The Chainsmokers: Their Hopes For Another "Golden Age" Of Dance Music, A Latin Collab And Yes, Going To Space
The Chainsmokers

Photo: Disruptor

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Catching Up With The Chainsmokers: Their Hopes For Another "Golden Age" Of Dance Music, A Latin Collab And Yes, Going To Space

This year saw the Chainsmokers make a return with their most mature album yet, 'So Far So Good.' The dance duo reflect on another wild year, which included planning a trip to perform in space in 2024.

GRAMMYs/Dec 15, 2022 - 07:01 pm

From the moment the Chainsmokers took off in 2016 with "Roses," they never slowed down. The duo of Drew Taggart and Alex Pall delivered three albums between 2017 and 2019, in addition to a rigorous global touring schedule that included a three-year Las Vegas residency. They had the career artists dream of, but they were burnt out. So what did they do? Well, slow down.

Even before the world shut down in March 2020, the Chainsmokers planned to take the year off — for their own sakes, but mostly for the band's sake. Shortly after their 2019 tour ended, they took a two-week trip to Hawaii in hopes of a reset. 

"What we were making before was great, but we felt like it didn't have a thesis, [and it] kind of lost its soul a little bit," Taggart admits. "We wanted to rediscover what made us most excited about being in this band."

That trip ignited the process for their fourth studio album, So Far So Good, a 16-track display of a rejuvenated, mature Chainsmokers. Its wide array of production techniques showed the duo's growth as well as their true talent — something that they're highly aware has been mocked. They even made that clear in their album announcement, a video titled, "Sorry, the Chainsmokers are back." 

Though the album wasn't their most commercially successful, So Far So Good received glowing reviews from fans upon its May 2022 release. ("I saw comments that were like, 'This is my favorite album' and 'This is the most complete album you guys have put out,'" Pall recalls.) But after hearing them talk about the album for even just a few minutes, it's clear that the Chainsmokers didn't really care about how their music was received — they're just happy to still be making it.

The Chainsmokers sat down with GRAMMY.com to reflect on what their return meant to them, their place in today's dance scene, and that crazy announcement about performing in space.

Earlier this year, you did a cover story for Billboard, which touched on the fact that you guys had an unfair reputation in the beginning of your career. Regardless of what has been said, how do you two feel about your place in the dance world?

Pall: I think we've done a lot of growing up. It's such a wild ride. No one can truly prepare you for what we went through. We definitely made some mistakes and missteps and things, but I'd like to think we owned the moments and made ourselves better afterwards. 

And as far as the dance music community, this is what brought us together. There's nothing more important to us than staying connected to the electronic scene. And there's a lot of great artists like that right now, like Fred again.. and other people that are doing some really awesome, inspiring things. We hope we continue to be a big part of that world and find ways to bring the pieces of it that made us so excited about it back [in the beginning] — reinventing and innovating and creating new sounds and styles of music that people are fond of. 

That's the challenge right now for us — finding that balance of making things that we want to keep coming back to that sound fresh and exciting, but also unique to what makes the Chainsmokers' music special. 

I think every artist kind of endures this moment where you become successful for a sound or style, and then you try to prove to yourself that you're more than that sound and style. You go on this, like, tangential journey that isn't not important because it's like leaving home — you have to just discover yourself again. 

Ultimately, we learned a lot. We certainly improved a lot of our production and songwriting and everything. And now, it's like, going back to those important principles that got us here in the first place and innovating them. And I think So Far So Good did a really good job of that — finding some of those pieces and making them more interesting and exciting. We weren't scared about taking songs in really experimental directions.

It is interesting thinking about the complex of being an artist who has a hit song. That has to be so tricky, especially when you are eager to show that you are more than your big hit.

Taggart: Now more than ever, a lot of the artists that we look up to — that are some of the most popular in the world — they aren't ones that are living and dying by hit songs. They're obviously some amazing, massive artists that can consistently deliver big songs, but they don't have the highest streaming numbers. But, they still do arenas and massive festivals because they're really good at playing to their fan base and really focusing on that. I think that's the most important thing that any artist can do.

Pall: Yeah, if you want that longevity, it's [about] building worlds that people can live in with you. And that is why we hang out on our Discord and different channels so much — we want to keep connecting with those people, let them be a part of the process, listen to them, even. And hopefully, we'll figure out where we want to go next. 

It's a cool time in music, with everything that's happening from the technology side to the GRAMMYs adding a songwriter category. It's certainly been an interesting year.

I watched your interview with Zane Lowe, and you were talking about the time that you were coming up with all of these other dance artists. You're just name-dropping all these people, and I was like, "Holy crap, I don't think I realized just how monumental dance was in the early 2010s!" And it does feel like it's coming back around now.

Pall: Back then, it was this really interesting time where you had bands like MGMT and Passion Pit and Phoenix, but then you had like Mastercraft, Boys Noize and Daft Punk — these kind of electro acts that were making really exciting and interesting music. And then it evolved into this Skrillex, Zedd, Avicii, Calvin Harris era, which was just like, the golden age of dance music, when we were getting into the scene.

Taggart: It does kind of feel like that now. Hard house is like, so big in Europe right now. It doesn't really have much presence in the U.S., but that could be the kind of the Boys Noize electro scene, and then you have techno and deep house that's really popping off. Where all this leads, I'm not sure, but it's really an exciting time that feels like the beginning of how it started before. 

Pall: And you need producers. We have so much respect for artists like Flume and ODESZA and countless other acts [who are] experimenting. Experimenting and remixes ultimately led us to discovering our sound with "Roses." And I think that's why So Far So Good was so important to us, because it was that process of removing any sort of limitations and expectations that allowed us to dive into all these genre-bending songs. And then you kind of come out the other side with clarity on the things that really feel like you were honing in on something special.

You guys have already been in the scene for 10 years, and I feel like dance has completely changed in that time, in a cool way. Where do you think dance is at now?

Taggart: I haven't seen this many people excited about dance music in quite some time. I'm seeing so many more underground techno DJs build really massive followings that compete with more EDM [acts] and their followings on Instagram [and such]. They [post] videos of them playing shows, and the engagement is super high. And then you have new artists like Fred again.. that everyone is just rallying around right now. He's built this really unique, genuine, awesome, energetic show. 

And then, of course, you have Beyoncé and Drake dropping albums that have a lot of dance-influenced [tracks] on there too. It feels like the world's kind of coming back to it, so I'm hoping that this leads to some innovation and we have another golden age of dance music. 

I think people really just want to have fun right now, coming out of the pandemic. We've been in a hip-hop wave for about seven years now — which has been awesome, and there's been so much amazing, interesting music. I just think things are gonna change again now. And whether dance music becomes a leading genre, I hope that people get excited about it again, these festivals pop off again, and it leads to more innovation in the space.

You've both mentioned Fred again.., but are there any other dance acts — or maybe even people who aren't quite in the dance space, but are dabbling in it — that is really awesome and might even be kind of changing the game for dance?

Pall: There are a lot of cool artists — I love this group Ship Wrek, they have a really interesting sound. Tale Of Us, a deep house group, has been making really euphoric, cinematic, Hans Zimmer-type deep house records that are really cool. Rüfüs Du Sol obviously tapping into this really unique — I don't even know how you describe it — it's like, deep house, but it's from the perspective of a band. 

Taggart: ARTBAT is these two Ukrainian DJs that are amazing. They have this massive sound that is just an experience that you can get lost in.

There's a ton out outside of dance music that we're super into too. I feel like our take on dance music has always been kind of combining indie/alternative stuff with traditional EDM energy.

I'm obsessed with this kid called Versace right now. And I don't know how that makes its way into our music, but his stuff sounds so fresh. It feels like I'm discovering Post Malone for the first time.

Is there anyone you're looking to collaborate with?

Pall: We've been super inspired by the Latin scene, from our friends like Sebastian Yatra and Bad Bunny and Maluma and Bizzarap. That's probably when we're at our strongest, when we do those really interesting types of collaborations that maybe people didn't expect. We're for sure gonna go further down that road in the future.

Have you guys done a Latin collaboration yet?

Taggart: Never.

Pall: We've worked on a ton of different things. And it's got to feel right. It's got to have the DNA of Chainsmokers. You gotta find that right moment, right song, right collaboration. [We're] definitely exploring it, but it's just a matter of feeling really confident about the song itself.

Well, and you don't want to come off as like, "Hey, Latin music is really popular. We want to get in on that."

Pall: 100 percent. Now, if you hung out with us, I feel like 85 percent of the music we listen to is exclusively Latin music. So it'd be coming from a real genuine place now if it happened.

I mean, there's a lot of awesome beats in that world! I don't know how more dance artists aren't tapping into that.

Taggart: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of songs that are great reggaeton songs, but a lot of artists that we love in that scene are multi-genre. I feel more comfortable about us fitting into the world than I did probably five years ago, when it was strictly something that wasn't anything we had traditionally come up in. Now it's more genre-bending.

Pall: For me, listening to Bad Bunny's amazing melodies and these incredible voices, it feels reminiscent of getting into dance music. It's a feeling that you get.

So aside from a Latin collaboration, are there things that you feel like you haven't achieved yet, whether musically or something that you want to do in your career?

Taggart: I just have been enjoying where we're at right now. We're having more fun writing music than ever before, and I feel very open-minded about trying new things. I just want to be around and be able to work with great new talent that comes out, and have fun, and kind of expand my artistic palette. 

It's crazy to have a 10-year career in music. Going forward, I just want to be very embracing of everything that's new, [but] stick to our core, and remain authentic, and just lean into all that.

Pall: I don't know if we could ever recreate the amazing run we had for ourselves again, but if we ever found ourselves [with] a song that the world was embracing [again], [I'd want to] do things right, and enjoy that process more. Because, again, it was like us playing catch-up. [We were] just young and trying to figure it out. I would love to have the opportunity to live through an exciting moment like that again, and do it the way that we know we could now.

But if it doesn't come, that's totally fine, too, to Drew's point. We're having a blast, we have so many exciting things that we're working on and a part of. We're just grateful to be here, and we want to continue to feel like this into the future.

Did you ever think you'd add performing in space to your resume?

Taggart: [Laughs] Umm…we'll see how that goes.

Pall: It's such a Chainsmoker headline. It was funny, actually — obviously, we knew about this for a while, and there's still a lot of things that need to be figured out, whether this is a reality or not. But hopefully it works out. So much has been happening that we forgot about it. And we woke up that morning to like, 25 messages from friends being like, "You're going to space?" And we were like, "Oh s—, this is real now."

Better get your spacesuits on and train!

Pall: Daft Punk might have been a more suitable option to send into space, but we'll try our best.

I mean, you have until 2024. You've got time to figure things out.

Pall: I had a conversation with my girlfriend that morning. She's like, "You're doing what?" And I was like, "Don't worry about this yet." [Laughs]

That's definitely the kind of thing where no one will think you're serious until you're actually doing it. But I do feel like that's kind of like the way the music is going, though. I don't think it's that out of left field for an artist to perform in space.

Pall: It's always funny to me, the things we set our sights on as a human race. Like, "How cool would that be to say that you were the first artist to play in space?" But also, it's like, "Why are we playing music in space?"

In the meantime, I'm glad to hear that you feel like you are in the best place you've ever been as artists. I saw that you're already working on the next album — it must be nice knowing that you're going into this next phase of making music feeling so good.

Pall: Yeah, and not be so protective over it. Before, it was like, we'd make a song and we were basically in a bubble — we weren't allowed to play a song that we just made and dance with your friends and see how they feel [about it.] Now, it's the complete opposite. It's like nothing is sacred. We could go upstairs and post a video on our story of a song we're working on and everyone can say, "Holy s—, we want this!" It's definitely exciting times in that regard. 

We're here for our fans that have supported us from the get go. We want to keep pushing ourselves to be bold as we write and produce, and continue to tap into those things that not only made us fall in love with music, but hopefully made people fall in love with the sounds that we create.

Since you're feeling so good about where you're at, how do you hope that this chapter of the Chainsmokers and what's to come is perceived?

Taggart: I've kind of given up on hoping for that. We just make stuff that we think is awesome and just keep doing that. It's all you can control.

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